Why Catching High Blood Pressure Early Matters

by Jennifer Rainey Marquez Health Writer

What is high blood pressure, exactly? Imagine a car with overinflated tires. “You’re either going to decrease the life of the tire or at some point it’s going to blow,” says physician Mary Ann Bauman, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Heart Association in Oklahoma City. “In the case of blood pressure, that could mean having a heart attack or it could mean congestive heart failure because the heart gets tired of pumping against that pressure.” By taking action to let a little metaphorical air out of those tires, you can sidestep the worst outcome. Here’s how to do it.

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High Blood Pressure Progression Is Sneaky

High blood pressure isn’t like the flu, where one day you’re fine and the next day you’re sick. Instead, it’s a progression that can slowly, quietly sneak up on you. That’s one reason why, in 2017, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, among other health organizations, lowered the threshold for high blood pressure from 140/90 to 130/80. “We are trying to catch people earlier, so they can start taking action earlier,” says Bauman.

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Small Changes Matter

The American Heart Association’s 2017 guidelines also did away with the label “prehypertension,” changing it to a diagnosis of “elevated blood pressure” for those with systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) between 120 and 129. The reason? “We don’t want the building to be two-thirds of the way burned before we call the fire department,” says John Bisognano, M.D., Ph.D., director of outpatient services in the division of cardiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

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Lifestyle Changes Work Better, Earlier

The new categorization allows doctors to take action sooner to help you get your numbers in check. That’s important because “once someone starts showing signs of elevated blood pressure, they’re very likely to develop full-blown hypertension,” says Dr. Bisagnano. But by recognizing the issue early on and working with your doctor to address your risk factors, you can make lifestyle changes, like improving your diet and exercising more, that could help you to slow down or even reverse the progression of the disease.

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Hypertension Raises Other Risk Factors, Too

High blood pressure is a major red flag for heart attacks, but it’s the number-one modifiable risk factor (that’s doctor speak for “things you can change”) for stroke and chronic kidney disease as well. “The complications of high blood pressure can take about 10 or 15 years to manifest, so if you develop hypertension in your 20s, you could be at risk for a stroke in your 30s or early 40s,” says Dr. Bauman. “That’s why knowing your numbers and intervening early is so critical.”

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Once Is Not Enough

Just as important as the numbers from a single reading, how your blood pressure changes from day to day and over time matters as well. If you’re doctor has told you that your blood pressure is borderline, rather than relying on a once-a-year reading at your annual checkup, you need to have your blood pressure checked daily. “You want to check it at the same time each day, because that’s how you start to see patterns,” says Dr. Bauman. Each time you check, she suggests getting two or three readings, with about a minute break in-between.

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Learn the Right Technique

The good news is that high blood pressure is easy to detect when measured correctly. The bad news is that many of us don’t know how it take it properly. To get an accurate reading, follow these tips: Avoid exercising for at least an hour before you do the reading Also, stay away from drinking coffee or smoking for at least 30 minutes ahead of time. To get the most accurate numbers, you should sit quietly for at least 5 or 10 minutes before slipping on the cuff.

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Practice Good Form

We’re not talking about your manners here. How you physically sit while doing your blood pressure check can impact your numbers. To get an accurate readout, try this: Sit with your feet flat on the floor in front of you (no crossed legs). Rest your cuffed arm on a table that’s at heart level. The cuff should be above your elbow, not on your wrist (and forget finger monitors, which aren’t nearly as accurate). Take normal, but full breaths (shallow breathing could affect your reading).

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It Runs in the Family

Much like baldness patterns and personal eccentricities, looking at your parents can provide insight into your future when it comes to blood pressure. “This is a disease that runs in families, particularly among people with more severe hypertension,” says Dr. Bisognano. But unlike baldness, catching high blood pressure early gives you a chance to try and change its course. If your parents have high blood pressure, that’s an extra incentive to have yours checked regularly. Be sure to let your physician know, too, so you can keep an eye on things together.

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Taking Action Keeps You in Control

High blood pressure is incredibly common (one in three Americans has it) and challenging to treat because it usually means making significant changes in the way you live your life. But this is the important thing: If you make those changes now, you stand a much better chance at overcoming the condition, avoiding heart disease, and continuing on with a healthy life. Delaying changes to your eating and exercise habits makes it harder and harder to reverse course and raises the odds of long-term medication. What are you waiting for?

Jennifer Rainey Marquez
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Rainey Marquez

Jennifer Rainey Marquez is a longtime health and science writer based in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Parade, and many other outlets. You can follow her at @jenrrain.